Our original rationale for pairing homeless teenagers with shelter animals was our founder’s observation that many young people living on the streets and under bridges had pets with them. Witnessing the strength of that bond, there was obvious potential to reach these young people through their love of animals and, at the same time, help chronically understaffed animal shelters through bringing in these young people as volunteers.
But the bond goes beyond young people’s love of animals. There is a kinship between the two groups that we continue to learn about every day. In doing our work over the past five years, we have grown to see many parallels between the life experiences of the young people and the homeless animals we serve; similarities in how they arrived at their current situation in life and in how that makes them feel. The same collection of reasons that lead to youth homelessness also send millions of animals to shelters each year. For example, some of the young people end up homeless having fled an abusive home, choosing the uncertainty of the streets over the known danger of home. Others arrive at the shelter after a lifetime of more “benign” neglect or after the adults responsible for their care have disappeared from their lives to jail, drugs, another family or the unknown. In other cases, their families didn’t abuse them but were just ill equipped to provide them with the support, financial and personal, that they needed.
In the case of animals, the reasons for homelessness run a similar spectrum. Many of their guardians reluctantly gave them up, having no choice because of an inability to obtain pet friendly housing (or housing at all) or inability to afford their care, particularly veterinary care which is beyond the means of a significant percentage of people. In other cases, the animals were seized from cruel owners who abused them, fought them or worse. Others were actively neglected through their guardians’ failure to provide adequate food, shelter or medical care. Indeed, most of the animals in shelters end up there through the kind of passive neglect that leaves so many kids out on their own before they are ready. The adults that were responsible for both the kids and the animals were not sufficiently committed to their care to stick it out when things got tough,
Because of our work connecting these two groups., we are privileged on a regular basis to see that “I am not alone” light bulb go off in a young person’s eyes when looking into the eyes of a homeless animal. Even if before that moment, they may have felt that they had little value and nothing to offer, they clearly don’t feel that way about the dog they are playing with and they often make the connection that their lives also have value and that they too can bring another living being happiness and companionship. And, that, my friends, is the essence of Hand2Paw.